Sears Stock Home Revival

Sculpting the Classic Home

Meet Michael Curtis — a sculptor who also designs houses — and the newest member of our Exclusive Studio. Here he is at the Supreme Court with his portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

His most significant sculptural commissions include The History of Texas at Texas Rangers Ball Park, Arlington, Texas, the largest US frieze of the 20th Century; numerous portrait busts for the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, and other public buildings. Recent statues include General Eisenhower and The Shipbuilder, both in Alexandria, Virginia and his painting, sculpture, and architectural drawings are represented in over 250 private and public collections. He also designed The New American Home 2011, debuting at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Orlando this coming January (to be described in a future post).

Naturally Michael’s house designs are rooted in the classical tradition, as you can see in his Plan 932-2 The Philadelphia, which re-invigorates the Colonial Revival style while adapting it to modern living.

The symmetrical arrangement of windows, porches, and columns adds a sense of courtly elegance and poise. Lots of curb appeal here: “Knock, knock, Ben Franklin, are you home?!” Inside, the layout of the main floor follows a classic Georgian/Colonial plan, with central foyer and stair hall between living room and kitchen/dining room. The rooms are distinct yet connected to one another (guess what: no dead-rooms!). Space flows gracefully in a circular motion, making this a good house for playing tag with the family dog — something I do quite a lot — and my ultimate test for a good floor plan.

Both the island kitchen and the dining room open to the screen porch or sun room as well as to the central hall. The living room opens to the central hall and to its own spacious covered porch. Because each main floor room is so well defined even as it connects to other spaces, the house can feel intimate or expansive, depending on the occasion. Such a design immediately brings to mind the Sears mail order houses of the early 20th century, like this one,

called The Lexington, from 1927. Note the price, $4030 for the whole house, not just the plan! The almost circular layout (too bad the living room has only one way in from the hall), the side porch, the symmetry, and the shutters are very similar to The Philadelphia. According to the online Sears Archive (a treasure trove of information): from 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold 70,000 – 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program and designed 447 different housing styles. Well, I guess you could say Michael Curtis’ plan is an improved late entry!

In Plan 492-3 Ann’s Arbor, Michael departs from the Sears model somewhat in opting for an almost geometric Greek Revival style design. He wraps a very simple gabled rectangle in a porch with Tuscan style wood columns, like a modest Greek temple.

The Greek temple form is also evident in the floor plan,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

with a very straightforward arrangement of rooms. In good weather the front veranda becomes an outdoor living room, while the side porches allow master suite and dining area to expand as well. Upstairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

there’s space for three bedrooms and a game/media room. More Michael Curtis designs will be debuting shortly. It’s a pleasure to welcome him aboard.

Two New Design Books

The subject of classical design is handsomely explored in the just published Classic Homes of Los Angeles, by Douglas Woods, sumptuously photographed by Melba Levick (Rizzoli).

Many of LA’s most impressive eclectically styles houses from the 1920s and 1930s are here including mansions by Paul Williams (who also produced several important stock plan books), George Washington Smith, and Roland Coate, along with brief histories of each commission.

A new book of architectural criticism also caught my eye: Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, by Blair Kamin, architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune.

Most of the essays are about Chicago but several are especially perceptive about larger issues. For example, he describes the restoration and improvement of Paul Rudolph’s famously battle-scarred Art & Architecture Building at Yale, a building that suffered fatal flaws in circulation and ventilation — and even a fire — despite heroic sculptural ambitions.  (I remember that building from my own time at college — with its fortress-like ribbons of corduroy concrete; if you leaned against it you bled. ) Kamin applauds how the redesign solved the functional problems and says “It is fitting that the restoration at once celebrates him (Paul Rudolph) and sends the broader signal that no matter how disheveled they appear, masterpieces of mid-twentieth-century modernism can and should be preserved.” Another essay on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (2,717 feet) shown on the book’s cover, praises the skill of its design while acknowledging the questionable nature of the tall for tall’s sake commission. I like his final punch line: ” Nothing succeeds, it seems to defiantly declare, like excess.”

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